Five mathematicians will take home US$3 million each as winners of the inaugural Breakthrough Prize for Mathematics, announced today.
Mathematics is the third field to benefit from the Breakthrough Prizes, which were established in the life sciences in 2013 and in theoretical physics in 2012. The high-profile awards, which have been met with praise, puzzlement and criticism within the scientific community, aim to raise researchers to celebrity status.
Winners of the 2014 mathematics prize include Simon Donaldson, of Stony Brook University in New York and Imperial College London, who drew ideas from physics to devise a method to understand when calculus can be done in a four-dimensional space; and Jacob Lurie of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who works on an abstract version of algebraic geometry.
Also awarded were Terence Tao of the University of California, Los Angeles — known for his work on problems involving prime numbers — and the number theorist Richard Taylor, of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, who contributed to solving Fermat’s last theorem.
For the remaining winner, Maxim Kontsevich of the Institute of Advanced Scientific Studies in Bures-sur-Yvette, France — who has worked at the intersection of mathematics and physics and on string theory in particular — the award will be his second $3-million pay-out, as he also won one of nine founding awards in fundamental physics in 2012.
Yuri Milner, an Internet entrepreneur and former physics PhD candidate, announced the mathematics prize in December last year, alongside fellow sponsor Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook.
Milner told Nature that in contrast to national funding agencies, which put their energies into funding research directly, the awards are about communicating the excitement of science to the broader public and about celebrating amazing minds.
The prizes will be presented at a televised ceremony in November. Last year’s event was hosted by actor Kevin Spacey and included entertainment by singer Lana Del Rey.
So far the prize sponsors — which, along with Milner and Zuckerberg, include the founders of Google, the Alibaba Group and 23andMe — have awarded more than $105 million.
Milner says that he hopes other people of means will think about funding science in their own way. He adds that there are currently no plans to introduce prizes in other fields.
As with the awards in biology and physics, the five inaugural winners will now go on to sit on the selection committee responsible for choosing future winners of the annual prize — a process Milner compares to awarding to the Oscars. Six major prizes will be awarded each year in biology, and one each in mathematics and physics.
The Breakthrough Prize organizers also announced that Art Levinson, chief executive of Google technology spin-out Calico, would step down as chair of Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Foundation. He will be succeeded by Cori Bargmann, a neurobiologist at Rockefeller University in New York and one of the inaugural winners of the prize.